(continued from previous chapter)
* * *
"'Tis like a gathering of grumpy old gaffers, this." Sam stopped for a closer look at the sturdy and weathered trunks that revealed their age with rough braids of bark and lichen clinging to the cracks.
"Yes, but..." Frodo lowered his voice and pressed Sam's fingers that were linked with his own, "be careful about insulting them."
"Ah, but they're asleep now, aren't they?" Sam murmured. They had strolled into a dell where oaks grew in an uneven round. Between the trees, damp air and the smell of wet earth hovered like a tenuous fog.
"I remember," Sam continued, "Mr. Bilbo saying to me, 'See all those gnarls and bumps and knots in the trees, lad? Don't they look just like faces, from their lumpy noses to their squinted eyes? Or that surly crack over there – why, it's a mouth just ready to open and talk. It'd spin us a grand tale, if we could but hear it.'"
The drizzle still whispered about them, and they'd both pulled up their hoods. Frodo had to turn his head fully to see Sam's face, lifted into the rain that raised a glow across his cheekbones.
"So of course I asked him, 'why can't we?', and he answers, 'I don't believe they ever start their conversation before the moon has set.'"
"Dear Bilbo..." Frodo followed Sam's gaze up into the oaks' twined crowns. Leafless, their curving limbs wove a graceful canopy, and several nests had become visible, tucked away into the higher branches. "It's no wonder, I guess, that the larger part of our family worried about the ideas he planted in their children's heads. His mind always seemed to overflow with them." For a time, he had asked himself if Bilbo's travels were the springsource of his restless imagination and curiosity, but now he thought he knew.
"Well, whatever my Gaffer might say about it, it didn't do me no harm," Sam replied instantly. "A wee lad I was at the time, but I'd lay awake of nights wishing I could go outside so's I might listen to the trees talking." He pursed his lips. "You don't suppose Mr. Bilbo knew about Ents all those years ago, do you?"
"If he did, he never mentioned them to me." Frodo took a last look around as they started to walk again. "Well, these oaks give me a distinctly sleepy impression, it's true, now that they have shed their burden." Strewn everywhere among the leaves, acorns rolled loosely under the soles of his feet.
Whenever they could, the Westfarthing villagers had stolen away into the woods to collect beechnuts, acorns or hazelnuts, and all the berries that grew wild. But in this glade remained acorns aplenty that neither squirrels, pigs nor hungry farmworkers had picked up.
"I used to string them together in a necklace for Mari," Sam said, stirring those overlooked riches with his toes, and Frodo could easily envision how he'd select the gleaming dark acorns for Marigold's throat while the smaller ones would lie closer to the nape of her neck.
"Do you think I could–" Frodo interrupted himself, considering the sudden notion that had swept him with a memory of Belladonna Took's glittering brooches, hair pins and necklaces, all jumbled together in a small casket Bilbo had left with him. "I should like to find a gift for Marigold. Since we missed her wedding."
He paused in his stride at the sudden pressure of Sam's fingers, but Sam's eyes were lowered to the leather-brown piles of oak leaves, his lashes dipping thin shadows against his cheeks. "You would..."
"I would what, Sam?"
Sam looked up and for a long moment didn't reply, then he reached out and touched Frodo's face. "Remember about a gift for Mari," he said, "and give her more than she'd ever wish for, too."
Although the day stretched dull and grey about them, his eyes held a brightness of their own, and the glide of his fingers on Frodo's wet skin traced it with a delicate heat like a first, half-glimpsed shiver of day.
"She's your sister," was all Frodo could say.
Hand in hand, they climbed the northern ridge. They had almost passed the sycamore that grew halfway up the slope when a sudden wind whipped their hoods back, and sunlight dashed across the slope, slanted rays skipping from scattered leaves to patches of grass and bare soil, even as the rain fell harder. As the wind ruffled the sycamore leaves, they were tugged up into the light like blossoms, or flames dancing over the dormant earth.
"Look, Sam," Frodo breathed, clutching Sam's hand. "Look..."
It struck him that he need never look elsewhere again, and everything was kept within this moment, rendered sheer to the light as it burst in a myriad beams, fine as silken threads, through the clouds. His eyes stung with it, and he noticed that he'd held his breath only when Sam's fingers moved against his own, easing the hard grip.
"Aye," Sam murmured, "there's such sights as can make you forget and remember all in one blink."
Frodo turned his head slowly. The same light sculpted Sam's face, but its touch made him seem more solid and real than the whole world around, placed at the heart of this moment.
Sam returned his gaze openly, willing to let himself be searched, to give answers that he might know nothing of. A startled smile sprang to his lips when Frodo laughed out loud.
"Oh, I'm – Sam, it's..." Such a rush went through his stomach that it felt as if he was slipping until his arms closed around Sam and thick strands tickled his mouth. "Only that we're here," he murmured against Sam's neck and the damp folds of wool. "I never imagined..."
Sam's fingers climbed from his shoulder blade to his hair, stroking unsteadily where the wind tangled, and a short breath hitched between their chests.
"I couldn't have."
Those few words caught on each other, mingling, and Frodo released his breath into the warm crook of Sam's neck. The laughter was still within him, silent now and honed to humming tension beneath his ribs, waiting – for what? The gap in the clouds was already closing again, swallowing that brief flare, but he remembered just then what they'd been singing as they left the Shire.
Still round the corner there may wait
A new road or a secret gate...
And it could be everywhere.
Another gust tossed rain against the side of his face in small, cold darts, but Sam's hand was instantly there, pulling the hood up again. Frodo turned his face quickly to brush his lips against Sam's fingertips. "Come on..."
He felt like running down the ridge on the other side, into the wind's outflung arms, but the rain was dissolving grass and loam into a morass, and they had to dig their heels in firmly. Below grew hazels in bushy clusters, and a moss-covered roof leaned back into the slope.
It belonged to a tottering old barn, its faded wall-boards crusted with green and frost-blackened mosses. The latch across the door had been broken and secured poorly with a string looped over rusty nails. Sam batted at the rain that splashed down from the roof's eaves and pulled at the door, as far as the string would allow. "We should go inside, till the weather's eased a bit."
As soon as they'd squeezed through the opening, an affronted cackle rose through the enclosure. Atop a ladder that led to the hayloft perched a brown hen, neck stretched as it cawed in alarm. Thin and dirty feathers quivered around its throat.
"Why, we've got company here!" Sam waved a hand at the hen. "Hush, you! We're just in from the rain to dry our feet a bit."
Seams of grey daylight lined the loosely fitted boards and crept over bare earth. The barn was empty except for a coil of rope tied to one of the posts that carried the loft, and a wooden bucket in a corner. Wind whistled through a broken board on one side, stirring up smells of hay and mould, and a bitter whiff of old dung.
"Whose barn is this?" Frodo asked. "Do you know?"
"There's the old way-station, about a furlong up the East Road – the wardens must've kept their goats here in winter, I'm thinking. It smells of goats, anyways." Sam stepped towards the ladder. "'Twill be more comfortable up there, with the hay and all." Although the hen had retreated from the crossbeam, it cackled anxiously as he started to climb. "We're not after your eggs," Sam grumbled, "if you've got any worth the taking, that is. Here, let me see."
"I'm not sure if she will find that
very reassuring, Sam..." With an amused shake of the head, Frodo climbed up after him.
A step to the left, Sam was bent over an untidy nest that held two eggs. The hen clucked reproachfully, its head darting from side to side, and Frodo could see that it examined them with only one eye, while the other had disappeared among purple and swollen skin-folds.
"'Tis no wonder you're so frightened..." Sam looked back over his shoulder. "See, they keep one eye on the ground as they peck for grain, and the other up to the sky to watch for hawks." As he straightened, the hen stalked back quickly to its nest and settled over the eggs.
"We should sit down a safe distance away, I suppose." Frodo looked around the scant bales that covered only half the floor, and pointed vaguely to the right. Within this snug space, the faded smells blended into the stronger scent of wet moss, the roof so low over their heads that they were forced to stoop.
"Aye, there's room enough..." Sam unfastened his cloak and dropped into a crouch to spread it across the hay, with its dry side turned up, "...but you didn't ought to walk away looking like the lowliest stable-boy, neither."
"And you think that would bother me?" Frodo asked. From the side he could see Sam's lip quirk in amusement.
"No, Mr. Frodo, that's why." Sam set his pouch aside, too, and when he turned, sitting back on his heels, the floating hay-dust swirled about him, each speck clear as the raindrops that glittered on his jaw. From the cracks in the timber, the feeble daylight inched its fingers nearer, until it almost caught in the lines that shadowed Sam's deepest smiles, there at the corner of his eyes, seeking a fulfilment that it could not reach. There was no reason why the sight stopped Frodo's breath in his throat, and every reason he had ever known, all drawn together like a meeting of rivers within the short space that separated them.
Sam caught his glance – "Mr. Frodo, what...?" – but Frodo was already moving. He knelt down in front of Sam, skimming his fingers up to those tender lines, and leaned forward to press his mouth against Sam's forehead, catching fine spray on his lips.
"I'm always touching you," he said softly, "and you are always touching me, wherever we are..."
In one fierce movement, Sam flung an arm about his back and buried his face at Frodo's throat, where his breath rushed out in a thick, warm puff.
Frodo thought, perhaps better than I do,
and drew his fingers down along the sides of Sam's jaw, slowly lifting his chin.
"And still there are times," Frodo murmured, "when I need – when I can't..." It seemed there was no room left inside him for words or voice, only the breathless, unquestionable longing that drew them together and sealed the air about them.
He found Sam's mouth with the smallest dip of his head and sank into the soft pressure of their lips against each other, searching through the rain's lingering chill that was already melting aside. Inside this close-drawn quiet, every small movement and slip of breath bloomed and filled, suspended between Sam's hands, one curved around the back of Frodo's head and the other firm on his waist. Frodo slipped his tongue over the solid coolness of Sam's teeth, barely tasting a hint of rosehip-tea and the warmth beyond, before he pressed closer and they both lost their balance. Sam toppled sideways and with a winded chuckle caught himself on his elbows.
"I really seem to be too impatient..." Frodo steadied himself with a hand to the floor and smiled at Sam across his raised knees, meeting a gaze that held him, unerringly, at its centre and called a tingle to his skin, like dew brought forth in one slow wave at daybreak. The sensation skittered all over him as he lowered his eyes. Among the shreds of leaves and grass, bits of hay clung to Sam's ankles and the wet curls on his feet. Frodo raked his fingers through them. "And you... you're already starting to look like a stable-boy, I'm afraid." He slid his hand up the length of Sam's shin, until his fingers crept under the seam of Sam's breeches and curled into the crease behind his knee where pulse battered more gently than it did at Sam's throat, hidden beneath soft skin. He could feel the stillness, too, that came over Sam like a windless dusk, spreading and falling open to absorb his touch.
"I don't... mind that," Sam said, his reply snapped in two by a startled breath as Frodo's fingers stretched a little higher over the inside of his thigh. "Not one bit."
"I shall join you then..." Frodo unclasped his cloak, unwrapped his scarf and dropped both. When he moved around and placed a hand on Sam's chest to ease him back on the cloak, he touched a thump of heartbeat through layers of cloth. "Can I-?" Sam's jacket was damp across the shoulders and down the front where Frodo's fingers worked swiftly to undo the clasps.
"Tell me when you get cold..." He tugged Sam's shirt free of his waistband, smiling when Sam gave a short shake of the head.
"Not likely I will."
"Nor me," Frodo whispered, bending over him to pull more cloth aside and brush his mouth against the trail of dark hair below Sam's navel. His own skin had warmed rapidly, and the blood thrummed in his fingers as he dragged them up across Sam's belly, rumpling the shirt over the broad curve of his ribs.
It was one of Tom's winter shirts, borrowed until the clothes Sam had left in Crickhollow could be sent to the farm, and it still carried a faint scent that didn't belong to Sam. As Frodo pushed it out of the way, his breath quickened in a strange relief. He'd known all the while that Sam's skin would taste and smell differently in the Shire, but he'd had few chances yet of learning those countless new shades.
At nights they would lie in each other's arms, exchanging slow and careful touches that warmed their shelter between blanket and mattress, seeping through wool, fleece and straw, and from there passed out into the room to widen the shadows like the deep breaths they drew, until the room was wholly changed, hollow and secured like a vessel that carried them onward, into sleep.
When Frodo woke in the morning, it was always to the knowledge that Sam had roused before him – touched by the first grey shimmer that squeezed past the shutter, or less than that, a suspicion of the wind lifting before dawn – and that Sam watched him, though he held himself still. As morning began to leak in, Frodo would keep his eyes closed and burrow backward into Sam's embrace, or cup a hand over Sam's arm if it spanned his chest, staving off the moments that passed by them, together with the busy stirrings throughout the house. They were always listening. But there were times when Frodo didn't hear those slight noises, when all that he heard was the rush of his own blood hurrying too quickly towards waking, kept fast under Sam's arm, and it could become unbearable to lie there like this, Sam's lips at his neck, below his ear, holding and aware that they had to get up and draw apart within a minute or less, while the room dwindled into light.
But here, as the same yearning began to move within him, gathering and tightening, Frodo could let it rise and spread, from every unfinished thought to the pit of his chest to his fingertips. Every touch brought him closer, retrieving and releasing memories that were joined to Sam's skin until they fanned like the hay-dust settling about them, in a bright, open circle surrounding... this
. He smiled into a slight rumble that stirred to a hum under his lips.
"You're hungry," he mouthed against the skin of Sam's stomach and felt a chuckle set in before it rose to Sam's throat.
"Not so hungry that eating can't wait..." Sam's chest filled, then released the air slowly as if reluctant to yield the slightest part of this moment.
Frodo stroked up along the centre of his chest until he could caress the gentle curves of Sam's breast, thumbs tracing outward with light pressure as he splayed his fingers there. Five on the left, four on the right. He had learned to look at his maimed hand like this: clasped to Sam's skin and his waiting breaths, acknowledged between them. When he glanced up again, he could see how the frank, vulnerable fervour that so often showed only in Sam's eyes overcame his entire face, swift like a spring-flood that swept along the Water, mingling sedge and earth-clots with wild dashes of foam until it cleared to a dark, translucent stillness.
His own heartbeats leapt into his throat as he dropped kisses all over Sam's chest and Sam's breath rushed into his circling fingertips. Like a crossing of many paths, the pleasure of touching, of coaxing shivers that swarmed with the same fleetness up and down his sides, opened and surrounded him. Frodo bent deeper to close his lips around a hardened nipple, his forehead cushioned on the shirt's bunched folds, and felt Sam start to move under him, his back tensing in a slight arch. From carding gently through Frodo's curls, his fingers moved to the side of Frodo's face, and he met the roughened skin with his lips, placing a kiss at the centre of Sam's palm. A tang of pine and tallow lay cupped there, and a memory of dandelion juice trickling out thickly as Sam severed the hollow stem with a deft twist of his fingers.
Frodo shifted again until he could let each of Sam's heartbeats fill his mouth, open to a gentle thrum where skin clung to the bone. He skimmed one hand down to Sam's thigh, over tightly strung muscles, and up to his hip, tracing the taut strength of Sam's body that was merely an extension of a stronger heart. All this could be released into joy, little by little, while he followed the rhythm at which Sam's muscles shifted and stretched, and memories flowed back at every point – the familiar cadence of mowing, of reaping or turning the earth – and each movement flashed through him like wind over the Hill, bending high grass into shimmering waves. But these discoveries had begun a long time ago, and he wanted to follow them to the root that twined their lives, though he might never reach it.
There had been a time when Sam's warmth along his back carried him to the edge of day and unclosed a clear path before him. When Sam slept beside him on the strange wide bed in Rivendell and Frodo woke to a moonless dark, he could sometimes hear Bag End's gate swing back and forth in a nocturnal wind, with such immediacy that he wondered why he'd left it unlatched.
And in Mordor Sam had given him the Shire, had been earth and sky for him as remembrance leached from his mind, his heart, always quicker than he could stopper the rents – even as he tried to absorb the smallest sights and the slightest sounds, which was always like scooping water into a cracked bucket. Or perhaps it had been more like floating beneath the surface of a frozen lake and straining to discern the blurred shape of a shoreline, of branches and clouds through the ice. As if he was a mere flicker of daylight, trapped by accident underneath it all.
But could he give the same to Sam? Now that the Shire had been so torn and drained, Sam needed... needed
, as he himself had, when only scattered embers of will carried him forward.
"Frodo," Sam whispered, and he realised then that he was clutching too hard at Sam's hip, certain at a glance that there must be secret fears buried in Sam's breast he might cradle in his hands but did not know as clearly as he needed to. Under his fingers passed another breath, troubled and uneven.
"Sam, what – what is it?"
"Please..." Sam bit his lip, "Frodo... come here."
He moved up, braced on one elbow, his other arm flung over Sam's chest, and pressed himself close to Sam's side. "Sam, my dearest..."
"Oh, I couldn't be happier now." Sam turned into his embrace and kissed his throat, and yet Frodo felt the same question quiver there, in a leap of pulse between Sam's open lips.
"There is nothing that I would not give you," he said softly, his mouth stirring at the damp curls behind Sam's ear. "Nothing that you cannot ask of me." He couldn't imagine anything more painful than a sudden stop to the rising within him that wanted to surge and give, without consideration or end. "Can't you tell me?"
"Only... you." Sam's voice fell thick and hoarse against his neck.
Frodo took his hand and placed it over his chest. "You have me. Always."
Sam's answer was without words, only a soft sound that caught in his throat. His fingers curled in close about a button, and Frodo sat up to let him undo them all, until his shirt hung loose, swept open to Sam's touch. Every ounce of weight seemed to pass out of him when Sam stretched both hands across his chest, cradling the chill that flew up his ribs.
"Am I-?" Here. Whole.
But the next word didn't come, drained away when he found Sam's eyes, full and deep, as if he'd drown in what he saw. "You look at me as if you see me anew every time, and you didn't expect..."
"I do. I don't." But Sam's lips curved, and something seemed to pass with the quick breath he exhaled, yielding gladly. "How could I?"
His fingers took light paths across Frodo's chest and drew liquid tingles to them that would all come together, merging at a time and place Frodo could never guess. But he didn't need to, either. It was enough for him to lean and sink into the surety of Sam's touch that never faltered, even when his hands were shaking – more than enough to feel the joy that flickered in the trails of pleasure, like water filling dry basins and hollows along a river's banks, to be warmed through with sunlight. He moulded himself against Sam, raising a hand to unlace the shirt's fastening at the collar and bury his mouth at the base of Sam's throat.
For months in Gondor, they had been engrossed in this unexpected marvel, expressing nothing but wonder with their mouths and hands as softness and strength returned to their bodies, and every day brought near-invisible changes that neither of them could bear to miss. Every inch of skin deserved the most tender attention, when only touching and tasting could truly waken it to life.
It was not the same flesh and skin anymore that clothed them now, Frodo thought, but it had regrown, hiding and protecting the bones that he knew as if he'd touched them, as if Sam had carved himself open to let him reach inside.
He lapped at Sam's throat, holding the pulse, the rough sound of Sam's groan on his tongue where both rolled like a first pungent sip of wine.
"You're all my wishing," Sam murmured and cupped a hand beneath Frodo's jaw to lift his face, until their mouths met, swift and hungry this time.
Their breaths tangled in this sudden rush, teeth catching briefly, and they broke apart only to cling in open surrender. Those kisses spoke in other words, shaped to suit the play between their tongues, sliding and flowing like smooth, high notes from taut strings. While he searched out the hidden tastes in Sam's mouth, Frodo stroked his fingers over Sam's chest and side, gathering under his hand a thousand sparks of life that crawled beneath Sam's skin, every touch steered by a need that recognised only Sam, and always would.
It ran along his spine, fine prickles of surprised heat settling here and there, swirling on his skin that tautened with expectation. Waiting, breathing... A bird might feel this way at a first ruffling of its wings, a crackling through the bones as something contracted and conceived the chance of flight. Sam's hand had crept under his jacket and shirt, squeezing up his spine to press beneath his shoulder blade, trapped under thick wool. A moan loosened in Frodo's throat at the thrust of Sam's tongue against his, desire rolling through him in soft, quickened pangs until only the movement was left, no longer restless but turned in a single direction.
"You..." he gasped against Sam's mouth, "guide me."
His breathing quick and ragged, Sam clasped his waist, and Frodo lifted on an elbow, sliding his thigh over Sam's to settle himself higher, so that their bared chests could touch. From squeezing Sam's thigh near the hip, his fingers stumbled inward, across the wrinkles in Sam's breeches, slipped between his legs and up with gentle pressure. He kissed a gasp off Sam's lips, taking it so deeply that it spun a whirl in his chest. As his fingertips touched the solid shape of Sam's arousal through warmed cloth, he could feel its heat and push within him, in a burst that clenched deep behind his groin and touched bright pinpoints up to his heart.
Frodo tugged on the fastenings of Sam's breeches, fumbling with the knotted strings until he could feel Sam, cupped and cradled under his hand, meeting him hard with need, and the sound that his touch drove from Sam's throat, crushed and breathless, told him to wait another moment, his own body taut around a piercing thrill.
The first time he had felt this raw flare of want, it had shocked him to stillness, folded about a bottomless, unknown range within himself. But what did I know of want?
It claimed him now with a parched tension, quick as a torrid wash over baking stones when he lowered his head to suckle along the vein at Sam's throat. And if his skin pricked as though fine scars were opened again, this was how he could breathe, bleeding air because he must know –
Only Sam, his skin, his sighs, and the barely audible rustles of hay beneath the cloak. When he pressed down against Sam's thigh, a sweet, searing jolt rocked him forward – "oh!" he gasped, almost laughing – sagging into the clasp of Sam's arm over his back while his own fingers closed to a tighter circle, caressing in shaken strokes. His heart lurched in his chest at the slide of tender skin that sheathed a throbbing pulse, the brush of damp curls against his knuckles, and the stirs on Sam's face that flickered beneath his own flying breaths. There had never been anything more beautiful than the warmth set alight on Sam's cheeks, the trembling starts on his soft lower lip as Sam's moans wound themselves around his senses.
"Keep your eyes closed," Frodo breathed, brushing his mouth over Sam's lids, "don't look at me now, or I'll..."
"What?" Sam murmured, and beneath the quiver of his lashes Frodo could feel the skin crease in soundless laughter.
"No, you're right..." It didn't matter how long it lasted until the tight coil inside him sang and snapped. Every joining of their bodies was a beginning, a confirmation, released along endless threads, as vibrant in sound as in silence. Frodo rested his forehead against Sam's, panting.
With both hands, Sam reached for the waistband of his trousers, loosened and unfastened them with quick determination, until he'd shoved them out of the way. When he pulled Frodo against him, every muscle and sinew in his body strained, and they writhed together with a craving to touch everywhere. Their mouths moved over each other's face, trailing damp and heated claims, until Sam thrust his hips up, and his eyes flew open again – "Frodo..." – his voice cracking as if the sound had welled from a dry riverbed.
It flushed over Frodo, stinging hot as tears when Sam caught his hips, urging him up close, and he thrilled to the sudden force of that grip, the stab of hardness against his belly. He heard nothing but Sam's choking gasp, knew nothing but the joy running through a locked gaze while quick spurts spilled over his fingers – holding his breath trapped, only to see
for another moment – and a tremor seized him, clutched inward first, then poured out. He shook with airless abandon, like a spark flung up from a fire.
When his breaths dropped into the hollow of Sam's throat, they carried the sound of his own voice back to him, and he sank against Sam's heaving chest. It seemed at that moment as if everything should be traced by an outline of fire, or shimmer with it, like a hand held over the flame, so that the blood casts its vivid pulse to the light.
He could not speak, but gradually the harsh sounds of his own breathing faded into a distant tapping, the low thunder of rain beating at earth, timber and moss. Time softened about them, like goosedown shaken out of a pillow, floating aimlessly to the ground.
"Sam... my Sam." Frodo cupped his hand to Sam's cheek, grazing a flutter of lashes with the tip of his thumb.
In Sam's eyes swam a bewildered expectation that waking from a protracted dream might bring, when the first glance of day bears the heartbeat to a brink between hope and fear.
"Do you know," Frodo whispered, "do you know where you are?"
Sam nodded just barely. "With you..." His eyes filled, and he blinked hard. "As near the Shire's heart as may be."
"With me." Frodo cradled Sam's head against the curve of his neck, combing unsteady fingers through his hair. Every touch followed the lingering tremors that ebbed inside him.
"For a trice there," Sam murmured, "I thought... we were back in Bag End. Though we've never..."
"But we will."
Frodo kissed him slowly, remembering how Sam had felt in his hand, stray flickers dancing through his blood, the skin of their bellies touching. It didn't matter where and how they were joined as they swayed together in close, sweat-damp comfort. With untiring tenderness, Sam's hands wandered from place to place, rubbing the small of Frodo's back, squeezing his shoulder, catching a handful of his curls and kneading them as if appraising combed wool just run off the wheel. His fingers came to rest under Frodo's ear, and a newly hastened pulse sprang up to meet him. From somewhere on the left, the brooding hen clucked irritably.
"I think..." Frodo paused to raise his voice above a distracted mumble. "I think we've disturbed our host again, Sam."
Sam gave him a startled look, but then it brimmed over into the beautiful smile Frodo had longed to see from the moment they settled here, free and whole. His breath was raw in his throat, and he could not turn his eyes away.
"Frodo," Sam said huskily, "You ought to see yourself..."
"And what would I see?" It was then that Sam's stomach rumbled again, and Frodo laughed softly. "Never mind that now." He rolled apart to straighten his jacket and found the shortcake crumbled in his pocket. "Well, Sam, it seems I have crushed our lunch." With a snort, he shook the remains into his palm. "I should have been more careful."
Sam watched him with a gleam in his eyes. "We've still got two apples, too."
"But this is too good to waste..." Frodo fed him the largest piece of shortcake and kissed Sam as he chewed. "Isn't it?"
The throaty hum under Sam's chewing spoke of pure contentment. Frodo placed his palm flat over Sam's stomach and with his free hand scooped the spiced morsels into his mouth. Then he moved down to lick at Sam's belly, gathering slick salt on his tongue, rubbing his cheek against the rasp of dark curls. Goosebumps stirred as he lapped the tender skin at the crease of Sam's thigh, feeding on his taste and scent until Sam caught his hands and pulled him back to his side.
"Let me look at you now," Sam murmured, brushing the curls back from Frodo's forehead.
"As long as you like."
"Then we'll be here all winter," Sam answered. He wrapped Frodo's cloak over them like a blanket and covered his bare skin with slow, thoughtful caresses.
* * *
In the distance beyond the East Road, only a rim of gold lined the hanging bulwark of clouds, its frosty shimmer as pale as dawn. They rounded the felled trees quickly and passed through a gap in the fence to cross directly towards the Cotton fields.
"We won't reach the farm before dusk," Frodo said, surprised at how far the sun had already lowered. "I didn't realise how much time had passed."
"'Tweren't a moment wasted."
"I didn't say that." When Frodo turned, he found Sam's expression lit with unyielding intent. He reached out and picked a thin hay-stalk from Sam's hair, twirling it between his fingers before he flicked it aside. "Nor did I mean to say that."
"I know you didn't, but there's others that would." Sam held his eyes as he wrapped an arm around Frodo's waist, bluntly pulling him towards a kiss that joined their mouths, open and breathing, and swallowed Frodo's reply. No-one else will know.
A swerving wind rushed in Frodo's ears and blew his curls against Sam's cheek. Within heartbeats of returning the kiss, of raising his hands to Sam's face, so many wishes tumbled through his chest that all he could do was breathe them out, entrust them to the warmth they cradled between them. When Sam drew back, brushing another quick kiss to the corner of Frodo's mouth, Frodo leaned their foreheads together, wordlessly squeezing Sam's shoulders before he stood back.
From here they would walk without touching, but as they continued on their way, he felt Sam's nearness through all his limbs, as clearly as the sunset's last darting rays edged the trees and hedges whose shadows patterned the grounds ahead of them. In the wintry quiet, a supple pulse travelled down through the soles of his feet and into the ground.
Everywhere among the trees, sips of water were cupped in the curled fallen leaves, and wind ran among the crowns with tireless rustles and a soft creaking of boughs. The sounds made Frodo think of Rivendell once again, of the water's gush swelling from the deep of the valley, and the broad-leaved elm standing guard above. By now it would have lost so many leaves that the remaining ones could be counted amidst the spread of graceful branches, and each would shiver independently in a patient wind. If they had stayed longer, he might have watched as the tree let go of its leaves, one by one. He thought of Bilbo, too, a blanket over his knees as he dozed before the hearth, sheltered against the passing of time. Perhaps when Bilbo awoke he would wonder if he had merely dreamed their visit, or he might think of it as part of a tale that his mind had unravelled into the future.
"Do you know, Sam," Frodo said, "I don't believe it was his age that kept Bilbo from writing his book as he'd planned. It really didn't matter to him anymore."
"Mayhap it's that he's living within Elvish time... and that's closer to songs than aught I know."
Frodo slowed his steps, startled as though he'd glimpsed a sudden movement at the corner of his eye. "I remember, in Lórien... you said we were inside a song." He sent Sam a sidelong glance. "That is not the same as being inside a tale, is it?"
"It isn't," Sam answered, "but I couldn't say why myself. Save maybe that songs go round and round, like the seasons, you might say... Elvish songs do, leastways. But the tales run on like a road."
"Or a river..." Frodo shook his head at a thought that couldn't possibly lead him to the answer he was seeking.
Bright and sharp among ragged clouds, the moon's sickle had risen in the east, and its light began to draw grey runnels amid the dark blue shadows. Ahead of them spread the Cotton fields, gently sloping away into nightfall.
A light glimmered by the farmhouse, Frodo saw as they drew nearer, and its glow swayed about the waggon's bulky shape. Still in harness, the pony swept its tail from side to side, breath streaming into the cold air. By the light of the lantern that Mrs. Cotton held, Jolly and Nibs were busy unloading their purchases.
"Hullo there!" Sam called.
From the waggon's bed Farmer Cotton turned towards them, a barrel balanced in his arms. "Hullo, Sam, and good evening, Mr. Frodo! We've some cheering news for you." Squinting against the gloom, he handed the barrel down to Sam and pulled a knapsack from the stack of goods. "There's this, for starts... From your cousin Mr. Meriadoc, sent by a messenger of his that we happened into. Saved him a bit o' travellin', that did."
"Thank you." Frodo took the bag, guessing by its weight that it contained books besides some of his clothing from Crickhollow. "But there is more to tell, I take it?"
"Folk up near Budgeford found tunnels stuffed to the roof with vittles." Cotton smiled broadly, as if the triumph were his very own, and climbed down from the waggon. "There was all sorts of goods as those thieving ruffians took. Grain and cheeses and ale, I hear, even pipeweed!"
"Very welcome news indeed." Frodo stepped out of the way as Nibs collected a keg and hustled it into the house.
"Now, lads..." Farmer Cotton shoved his cap out of his forehead, setting one hand on Jolly's shoulder and the other on Sam's, "see to the pony and the waggon, and Nibs can help Mother with this load in the kitchen.
"There weren't much on offer at market," he added in Frodo's direction, "but seeing as how we're short on most things, 'twas worth every mile just for the cabbage and pickles."
"And candles, and wool for the loom," Rose said from the farmhouse doorstep, sleeves rolled up to her elbows. She smiled at Sam who'd started to guide the pony from the traces, and swung a smaller sack off the waggon. "'Evening, sir," she murmured with a nod to Frodo.
"Good evening," Frodo returned. "I hope you weren't drenched by the rain on your way."
"Oh, that were just a wee mizzle..." Rosie bounced the sack up to her shoulder and threw him a cautious glance. She had strong arms and a strong chin, now reddened by the same flush that spread from her cheeks to the tip of her round nose. "'Tis one of the season's washdays, as we say."
Frodo entered the house after her and carried the bag that Merry had sent into the bedroom. As he unlaced the knapsack's strings, fine scents of pipeweed, old leather and dried lavender breathed from it. Wrapped in the bundle of clothes – among them a pair of Sam's shirts and breeches – Frodo found three of his favourite books. A letter stuck out from the first, written on sturdy parchment. Frodo unfolded it with a smile at the unmistakable tilt of Merry's handwriting. Through most of it, Merry had diligently listed the stores that Buckland's granaries held, with some added suggestions for distributing the surplus.
I shall be back in Hobbiton next week,
he wrote near the end, where the lines ran closer together. For the mean-time, I am sending you some pipeweed, so that you can put your feet up in the evenings and enjoy a pleasant smoke. But mind that half of it is for Sam and his father, with my best regards.
Frodo pulled out two satchels, and the mellow scent of pipeleaf from Haysend enfolded him in the wish that he could set out to Buckland on the morrow. It was suddenly so easy to imagine the Brandywine on a Forelithe day, glints of sunlight and the shadows of willow branches dappling its flow near the eastern bank. Beyond the slope and the widely spaced fences, the broad outline of Brandy Hall would rise, surrounded by the usual bustle of carts and pony traps, threads of smoke weaving from the kitchen and bakehouse chimneys. And there was still the house in Crickhollow, with its deeply sheltered garden and its promise of an untried quiet... But the journey alone would take a day, if they travelled by cart, and Sam could not leave the Shire for so long, nor would he wish to.
A rattle from the outer door stirred Frodo from his musings. Among the creak of floorboards, he heard the Gaffer call a greeting and reached into the bag again. At the very bottom, carefully folded into several handkerchiefs, he found the ring with the Baggins seal that had been passed on from one family head to the next for many generations. On an impulse that he now suspected had been spite, he'd kept this ring to himself instead of handing it over to Lobelia and Lotho, together with the Mastership. Frodo rolled it in his palm before dropping it into his pocket, and shook out the crinkled clothes.
As he lifted one of Sam's shirts, it gave off a faint, lingering scent Frodo would have recognised anywhere. Pipeweed and soap and earth... He smoothed his palm across often-washed linen, recalling the smells of growth in the garden, after the rain, of tea steeping in the kitchen and oil-filled lamps in the corridor... We will have Bag End again.
Frodo swallowed around the sudden ache constricting his throat and placed the shirt atop the stack. We will. Next spring...
When he closed the bedroom door behind himself, Mrs. Cotton was busy in the kitchen quarter of the main room, stirring the warmed pottage from the night before. While Rosie set out mugs that brimmed with ale, Sam was cutting bread into thick chunks. The Gaffer had already seated himself on the bench and chewed on a soaked piece of bread-crust.
Frodo breathed out quickly, releasing all regret, before he crossed the room and set the pipeweed satchel down on the table. "A present from Merry, with best regards to the Gamgees."
"Why, that's mighty kind of 'im!" The Gaffer cupped a hand around the satchel and squeezed it almost reverently. "A starved body mightn't miss a good smoke, I've always said, but it'll cure a dolesome mood right quick. My thanks to Mr. Merry."
Sam paused in his cutting, and across the Gaffer's head Frodo caught his glad smile as it leapt and stilled like a candleflame. "I'll make sure to tell Merry when he returns next week."
Frodo took his own seat at the end of the table, and Rose was there in another instant, placing a filled bowl before him. A hearty smell rose from the pottage that was thick with bran.
"'Tis nigh on a feast as we've got here," Rosie said to Sam as she settled across from him. "Ale and sweet-bread, and honey for our tea!"
Sam raised his mug and blew on the froth. "I've missed the ale, I have."
"Ah, so've I, and no mistakin' it," the Gaffer agreed. "But tell us, Rosie, what's a lassie miss the most?"
He winked at her, and Rosie laughed, fresh colour springing to her cheeks. "That I'll keep to myself, Father Ham, if you don't mind." A carefree lilt ran in her voice that Frodo had heard sometimes when she and her brothers were driving the cattle back from pasture, among shouts and bits of song.
The front door opened, admitting a chill draft as Farmer Cotton, Nibs and Jolly filed into the room.
"How's old Whitling then," the farmer asked, pulling out the chair next to Frodo, "and his family?"
"A band of ruffians plundered the farm late in the summer," Frodo answered. "They took the pigs and a pony, and – well, no-one in the family was injured, at least."
"And them without neighbours they could call to for help!" Farmer Cotton shook his head and dipped his spoon into the pottage. "Fair days and good health!" Murmurs around the table echoed the customary blessing that marked the beginning of every supper.
"'Twas our fortune that we've had so many hands about all year," the farmer continued. "We never lost worse than a few hens such as the thievers snatched up in passing. They wasn't so quick to take on folk in bigger numbers."
"Aye, they took their sport from making mischief when they could come on us worried and lonesome." With a grimace, the Gaffer ducked his head to the spoon. "That were their way and custom, and I'll never forget it." He looked old and fragile, his thinning neck bared as he leaned forward, his swollen finger-joints clasped to the bowl. Frodo's glance slipped from him to Sam, tracing the concern that hovered in Sam's eyes.
"Well, let's be thankful that all the harriment and trouble is past," Mrs. Cotton said firmly. "Eat, and warm your stomachs for the night."
For a time, contented quiet settled over the table, divided only by the clatter of spoons on earthenware, but as bowls and cups were refilled, the family returned to their conversations. They would sit here until the fire had burned down to gloaming embers, then seek their beds. Frodo leaned back in his chair, absorbing the voices that flowed around him at the pace of a slow brook, accompanied by the mid-summer chant of crickets, on its course towards night. Tomorrow would be a Highday, and while most of the current labours wouldn't cease, everyone might rise a little later than they did during the week. There would be a meeting with all the area's farmers and landholders, too, Frodo reminded himself, later in the day, for which he should prepare.
When Mrs. Cotton and Rosie finally gathered up the dishes, everyone else filled their pipes from Merry's satchel. The Gaffer's expression eased into pure delight as he took a first drag, and the sight touched Frodo with a strange little pang. He doubted that he could find the words to describe the meaning of this small gift to Merry, but then Merry must have known as much before he sent the pipeweed. Curls of smoke drifted through the room, idly fanning in every direction like the drowsiness that crawled through Frodo's limbs. With half an ear, he listened to Nibs' account of a prank played on one of the Bywater weavers after a Lithe Day carouse.
"...so there he was," Nibs finished, "astride the old ass with nary a stitch on him and no inkling how he got there!"
"No such talk now!" Although Farmer Cotton cuffed his son lightly and his wife clucked her tongue, amusement sparked in the brief glance they shared. "'Tain't a trick to be proud of."
"Nor a thing to chatter about among company," Mrs. Cotton added, with a pointed glance towards Frodo.
He found a smile for her, aware that Sam was watching him through lowered lashes, perhaps searching for signs of tiredness or discomfort.
"Your Bill's broke a shoe on the stones, Sam," said Farmer Cotton, blowing long ribbons of smoke through his nose. "You'll have to take him out to the blacksmith."
Sam dipped his head. "I'm thinking I'll take the cracked water-kettle, too, and have it fixed."
"Aye, there's no end of things as wants mending, large and little. The wife'll thank 'ee for it." Cotton scratched the back of his neck, nodding at Sam with a pleased look that he passed around the table.
He treats Sam like one of his own,
Frodo thought – and what a comfort it must bring Sam, to be welcomed into this lively, long-familiar household. But underneath Frodo's breastbone, regrets uncoiled slowly, and stretched out to take root.
* * *
The room was choked with stale air that lay hard on his breath. Frodo pushed the blanket off himself and blinked, yet the dark cast a seamless circle about him, as complete as it had been in Moria.
I should open the window.
Setting his feet on the floor, Frodo levered himself up with a hand on the bedpost. Under his fingers the carved wood felt strangely cold and rough, like newly split stone, and his own breaths clung thickly to his face. When his outstretched hand found the window-frame at last, he gasped in relief, almost clapping his free hand over his mouth as he fumbled with the shutter's latch, to trap the wild, rasping sounds that rose in his throat.
The shutter yielded into a windless cold that washed over him in one slow wave and chilled the sweat on his face, but the dark remained unbroken. Through the window he stared into a round pit of blackness. No clouds or stars, no outline of fence or hedge or field, there was nothing.
He swayed on his feet, dizzy with betrayal that clutched in the pit of his stomach. How could this happen, after a day so laced with promise as the last one had been? I am dreaming,
he thought. I must be.
"Frodo...?" The whisper seemed harsh in his ears, but it pared away a first layer of the numbing confusion.
Had he staggered back? His fingers groped around the blanket's wool, and he found himself sitting on the edge of the bed, shivering in his nightshirt.
"Frodo." Sam's hand slid up his shoulder and settled there, questioning with the lightest pressure.
"Yes, I..." Frodo drew a fretful breath, but suddenly everything seemed too sharp to his senses, from the dry rustles of the bed to the slicing line of grey under the door. He set his eyes on it, willing his sight to linger, and his voice to steady. "It was dark and I couldn't see."
"Shall I fetch a light?" Closer by his ear, Sam's murmur carried a rough edge, dragged from the bottom of sleep. Frodo turned towards him until Sam's breath fell warm against his cheek.
"No, leave it." There would be greater relief, he felt, once his eyes recognised the dim slate-greys around the room. But when he filled his chest anew, he could smell the fear that clung to his own skin.
I must not let it touch him...
With an abrupt twist, Frodo pushed to his feet, groping in haste for his jumbled clothes. "I think I should go outside..." His shirt slipped to the floor, but he'd found his trousers and pulled them on quickly.
"But surely the hour's past midnight!" Sam protested.
"Only for a walk... for a breath of fresh air. That will tire me enough to go back to sleep."
Under the mattress, straw crackled like a fire stirring through tangled underbrush. "Wait till I–"
"No, Sam, don't worry, I will be all right." Frodo reached back to stay Sam's movement, firmly clasping his shoulder. "And I shan't be gone for very long either."
When he closed his jacket over his nightshirt, a small measure of calm returned and he might even have managed a smile, had Sam been able to see it. "Try to sleep," he whispered from the door, "please try."
In the quiet of the house, his own heartbeats seemed to batter at the smoky air, the floorboards' echoes of his footsteps, and the scraping of the front door latch. But then an icy waft bathed his face, and he could feel its sting rise into his temples.
For long moments Frodo paused on the threshold, drinking in the dim sights before him, from the yard's trampled loam to the thatch of grass and nettles beyond the fence. The moon had long set, but the night was brighter than he'd expected, touched here and there by glimmers of stars that peered through gaps in the clouds.
As he left the yard, scattered leaves whispered at each of his steps, adrift on the lane that stretched before him like a dark river of earth. Without giving it any thought, Frodo turned off into the footpath skirting the barley field. On its margin he discovered a round black spot where the ploughmen and farmhands must have lit their fires. Twitchgrass grew in tufts around the stripped soil. There were moments that opened within his mind like this, the singed marks of dreams or memories just departed.
Frodo crouched to skim his fingertips across charred fragments of wood that remained after the ashes had been blown aside. Underneath, the earth glared raw and black, and he swayed giddily, trapped on the edge of a chill that he knew should stab through him – but it didn't come.
Before the waiting could become sickening, he forced himself to rise and pull away. Perhaps he was listening too closely to his own fear, stalking back and forth along its borders without reason. Perhaps he was entangled inside a dream, searching for its limit and the telltale seams that would glow with flame. But there was none of it here, only the scar of a homely fire long extinguished, that would disappear in time beneath the sward. Surely there must be more, a sight or sound that could guide him past this numb sense of betrayal...
With sharp strides, he walked on to the corner of the field where bent rowans clustered densely, as if they might spawn a forest. Though the cold urged him to quicken his steps, his pace slowed, and it did not matter if the frost bit through his jacket or stiffened his toes. When he let his head fall back, the rowans' delicately curving boughs traced their veins across the skin of the sky. Among them, the stars should hang clear and close, he thought, like lanterns suspended from these stark and beautiful branches. But where had he ever seen stars so brilliant? Stars that revealed everything in their pure, changeless light?
A gust shook the boughs into a mild rustle that faltered again quickly. The stars sprinkled among the tree-tops seemed hazy and small, as if mirrored on a muddy pond. There would be no answer, not now, whether he'd dreamed or not.
I had no reason to come here,
Frodo thought as the night-air sank with the cold weight of stone into his chest. I should not have left Sam.
He turned on his heel, almost driven to a run across the distance that he'd wandered. Back to the farmhouse that formed a lightless slab at the fields' end. Back to Sam, alone in their bed and the narrow room, daubed with memories that belonged to neither of them.
Through the white flares of his own breath, Frodo saw that the first bedroom's shutter was firmly drawn. His own steps drummed in his ears and seemed to raise the shadows that sprang up as he crossed the yard, and he could scarcely muster the patience to open and shut doors quietly, heedful of the sleepers. His breaths were racing when he entered the bedroom that seemed warm enough to be stifling.
"Sam..." He wavered between drawing air and fumbling for words, for a question that should hover at the tip of his tongue. "Did you close the window, Sam?"
His only answer was a muffled sound that caught at his own throat. Frodo shed his jacket, not caring where it dropped, but he'd barely set his knee on the bed when Sam pulled him close. With enough strength to bruise, his arm locked around Frodo's middle, pressing hard below his ribcage.
While the mattress dipped away under them, Frodo caught hold of Sam's shoulder, half straddling his thighs. "I'm sorry." But the words almost drowned in the rush of his breath. Braced against Sam's chest, he pressed his face to sleep-ruffled hair. "Sam, forgive me."
"Take me with you." A desperate strain tightened Sam's voice to a near-whisper.
"Sam! Please don't, don't think..." Fear stabbed through Frodo again, all but blinding this time. "I should have known
A muted sound escaped against the skin of his neck, a moan or a sob draining from Sam's throat, and each heartbeat struck hard in Frodo's chest, for every moment that Sam had spent alone. There had been too many times when he couldn't answer Sam, locked into a struggle that left him sightless, senseless, lost to Sam's efforts of comforting him, to Sam's pleas and his rending hopes. Hadn't he promised himself that there should never be another moment like it?
He reached out with both hands, blindly groping along the collar of Sam's nightshirt, and knotted his fingers into Sam's curls. The tight clasp around his middle eased by fits and starts, and they dropped back against the bedding in an uneven, gasping tangle, as if they'd barely reached scant shelter.
"Sam..." Frodo could feel him tremble, deep starts rising from his chest through his shoulders and arms, and when Frodo turned his face, his mouth brushed the wetness on Sam's cheek. "My heart..." He kissed away the tears, suddenly shaking with shivers that wouldn't be stopped, as if his body had at last caught the chill taken out of doors. Now it must be leaching through his clothes, through Sam's nightshirt, spreading on Sam's skin like frost over a still pool.
"It all came back, didn't it?" Sam asked in a hoarse whisper. "It seemed like you were back-back with–"
"No..." Frodo breathed, unaware of his answer until he had voiced it.
"What did you dream then?"
"It was... nothing
." Frodo shook his head. "I never dream of it
, Sam. It is gone forever, as though... like a thing that never was." He held his breath against a jagged sob that threatened to twist free. "But is that possible?"
"Maybe..." Sam shifted, his arms encircling Frodo in a gentler embrace, so that their faces rested against the pillow, in the current of each other's breath. "It never couldn't be more than such things as it took."
That Sam should think about it, even now, striving for answers from the thick of his own fears, pulled another tremor through Frodo's limbs. Abrupt tears squeezed from his eyes with painful heat.
"Frodo," Sam wrapped a hand around his jaw, "now don't you start..."
"Have I not betrayed you?"
"How can you be askin' that?" Sam gripped his upper arm strongly, but his voice was soft with conviction. "'Twas never you that did any betraying, and you know it."
"But that was then
," Frodo said heatedly, "and now–"
"Now we're together, love." Sam brushed his lips against Frodo's temple, releasing a warm and ragged breath that blew a shiver along the side of Frodo's neck, barely enough to carry words – "You came back to me."
"But can you believe me?" Frodo asked, because he had to. "There is nothing that I desire as much as your happiness. Your joy."
"You needn't ask that, neither." Sam pulled up their nightshirts and wrenched them out of the way until they lay skin to skin. In his arms, Frodo shuddered violently, seized by a slow burst of pulse that swept and filled him and left him breathless.
"You're my joy," Sam murmured, and held him closer, "whether or no."
The sound of his voice, passing lightly through bone, skin and blood eased the taut tremors aside. Frodo pressed his lips to the crook of Sam's neck, shaping a caress where words could not reach. Clasped to Sam's breast, he sank into the kind, shadowed space they could claim as their own. It spread around him like a calm lake, a dark bowl of earth blending water with dashes of untimely light. He could let himself slide under the surface and down to the bottom, where nothing existed save the fervent heartbeats that surrounded his own.
* * *
(continued in the next chapter)
This is a work of fan fiction, written because the author has an abiding love for the works of J R R Tolkien. The characters, settings, places, and languages used in this work are the property of the Tolkien Estate, Tolkien Enterprises, and possibly New Line Cinema, except for certain original characters who belong to the author of the said work. The author will not receive any money or other remuneration for presenting the work on this archive site. The work is the intellectual property of the author, is available solely for the enjoyment of Henneth Annûn Story Archive readers, and may not be copied or redistributed by any means without the explicit written consent of the author.